Dealing with Apparently Perpetual Overwhelm: Starting from the Inside
I’m working with a client, whose organization is poised to grow substantially. He asked me to work with him in support of his continuing to be an effective leader in the face of his organization’s growth. When I asked him about how he currently worked, he sat down at his desk and physically enacted his experience for me. He was a human “Rube Goldberg” machine! You know those crazy machines that have 20 million moving parts, with movement in one part flipping into movement in some other part, like a chain reaction, many things happening at once, all over the place. Beginning to write an email, then picking up his phone, putting it down, scanning his computer screen, rolling back in his desk chair to get a paper on the credenza, rolling back to his desk, picking up the phone again….all at a sort of frenetic and always-in-motion pace. Is this what he actually did each day? No. But it was how he experienced it. Yeah – this guy was effective, he got a lot done. A lot! But he also said at the end of the day (which usually extended far into the evening) he felt physically sore and beat up, like he’d worked out with weights, but hadn’t been to the gym! And for relief, he found himself aimless roaming down the hallway, for no apparent purpose, only to sit back down at his desk and begin again.
Now this guy is very smart, very purposeful, insanely generative, a really successful fundraiser, and very passionate about his mission, which is to contribute to breaking the cycle of poverty in the U.S. by supporting urban high school students in navigating the financial aid maze, and accessing funding so they can get a college education. But he would find himself pulled in multiple directions all at once, everything appearing and feeling equally important and compelling. When asked to elaborate on his experience, he had a single word, “Overwhelm!” Lots of movement, lots of activity, but not necessarily effective action.
I see this in many of my clients who are fueled by passion to the social mission around which they organize themselves. With resources generally lean, usually understaffed given the task at hand, and an impulse to generate more possibilities, grab those that appear, and a bias toward practical action, what does it take to be able to foster or maintain effectiveness – and stay sane and relatively well in the process?
What can you do: Find your feet, Find your breath
Here’s what I offered my client: Find your feet. Yes, find your feet. And, while you are at it, find your breath. While the impulse is to take the next action (or try to take several actions at once) what really works is to take a break from the action. To do what I call “come back to home base” — Literally catch your breath, gather yourself and your energy. Re-center, find your ground for a few moments. And, then return to action from a calmer, more grounded and centered place. You’ll have more mental clarity, a bit of physical refreshment, and a greater sense of being emotionally settled.
Simply stopping to sense into your body and taking a few deep belly breathes triggers your parasympathetic nervous system, the system that supports lowering your heart rate, respiration and calms other physiological functions. So there’s good science behind this!
For my client, the experience of finding his feet – coming back to his body, while very simple was extremely profound. He realized that he “lost” himself in the midst of the activity of his day.
Give it a try:
- If you have an office, close the door. If you don’t find someplace you can sit uninterrupted for 5 or so minutes.
- Sit comfortably, imagining your spine is erect but soft – like a baby when they first learn to sit up. You can imagine space between the vertebrae.
- Feel you backside on the chair.
- Feel you feet on the floor. Imagine your feet being broad, flat and soft in your shoes, (or right on the floor if you’ve taken your shoes off). Imagine roots going down from your feet into the ground (even if you are not on the ground floor).
- Sense into your body as a whole. Don’t try to change however you feel, just notice it.
- Now breathing in through your nose, allow the breath in. Don’t effort at it. Allow the breath in, allowing it to fill you so your lower abdomen expands. You can breath in to a low count of 4.
- Now, allow the breath out through your mouth, slowly, to a count of 6 or 8. The principle here is that your out breath should be longer than your in breath.
- Do this for 3-5 minutes.As you finish, notice how the exercise affected you. How do you feel? Do you feel oriented differently to your circumstances? How does this affect the action you take?
I invite you to give this a try. It should take about 5 minutes. It’s tempting not to take the time. But this kind of practice pays dividends in terms of helping cultivate new and healthy ways of relating to the intensity of your work, that supports your sustaining both your effectiveness and well-being over time.
If you’d like to explore this topic further:
There’s even an iPhone app: “Breathing Zone”
One last note:
What are the issues you’d like to see discussed in this blog. Let me know, as I’ll be blogging every two weeks for a while!